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The far left’s prospects in 2014

Left ProspectsOn paper the far left agree on many things. The exploitative character of capitalism. The primacy of the working class. The unity of democracy and socialism. The inescapable necessity of revolution. The pro-imperialism of the AWL. And yet it remains as divided as ever. The regroupment projects of the last 20 years have, at best, come to nothing. At worst they have given rise to new animosities – especially north of the border. It’s not a matter of piss-poor leadership and dismal routinism, though that has a role to play. The far left is in a structural bind.

Neoliberalism is (un)dead but its radical corollary, individuated identity politics, goes from strength-to-strength. It is a cultural-political dominant the parties of the far left have adapted to. With a strong emphasis on party branding and fetishism of ultra-correct positioning, you might say such an adaptation was nigh-on inevitable. Taken in the round, this along with the far left’s shrivelling trade union roots, the continued erosion of the very idea of an independent working class culture, and the deliberate cultivation of insecurity and anomie by the most backward, sectional class war government in living memory is not terrain conducive to revolutionary socialist organisation.

Yet when the odds are stacked against you, windows of opportunity remain. Now Labour is openly (and finally) talking about varieties of capitalism and the necessity of embracing another model based on industrial state activism, curbing markets, and more planning, only but the most blinkered would see this as Blair/Brown neoliberalism by other means. Labour is groping its way back to social democracy. But some on the left are not satisfied. A post-2015 Labour government will still cut, its priority is managing British capitalism, it won’t bring socialism. This then is a political space on the party’s left flank that Labour cannot fill. Nor is it big enough for the Socialist Party’s Labour mk II, but room there is for a small left formation that could make a reasonable grab for the anti-politics vote.

There will also be those turned off by Labour’s message, especially if it continues to be wonky and determined to parrot the Tories on immigration and social security. Social media has also proven to be a great leveller. With increased access to alternative sources of information and a press in terminal decline, the traditional conservative message pumped out by the media counts for less with each passing year. The circumstances are far from benign, but is the far left in fit shape to take advantage?

There’s no denying that 2013 was the worst year in the SWP’s history. And justly so. Yet as their winter conference declared there was “nothing to see here” and another slew of experienced, long-term cadre upped sticks, I bet the leadership, the tedious triumvirate of Callinicos, Kimber and Leather went into the Christmas break relieved the crisis was over. Lost members, lost standing, lost plots – none of it mattered. The core party organisation emerged reduced but intact. The internal divisions are done, all that matters now is building the party anew.

In the past, the SWP has responded to reverses with voluntarism and boosterism. Remember when it substituted itself for Respect after it fell out with Galloway and practically all its other “unity” coalition allies? I have no doubt circulars have gone out from HQ expecting full timers to meet ambitious sales and recruitment targets. Where there’s a lack, there’s a dogmatic belief that activity alone can plug the gap. Unfortunately for them a hiding to nothing awaits. The SWP is going to find many of its trade union activist friends aren’t interested any more. They will find it more difficult to recruit in universities. The rest of the labour movement aren’t likely to go anywhere near UAF, LMHR and whatever their anti-cuts/right-to-work front group is called these days. And all it takes is a few minutes with an internet search for recruits to turn up the unpalatable character of their new organisation. Without any political strategy beyond the institutional demands of the SWP as an apparatus, it is difficult to see how it can fill any political space. If only there was an electoral alliance it could buddy up with.

Well, of course, there is. The SWP affiliates to the Socialist Party’s Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Before we get there, the Socialist Party haven’t had the best year either. Conspicuously quiet during the SWP’s “difficulties”, the SP has also been party to serious assault-related allegations regarding a senior member from Wales and a London Underground militant. But unlike the SWP, it is my understanding the police have looked into these matters and no charges have been brought. Obviously, as with Our Martin I have no opinion about the veracity of the allegations, yet any hint of obstructive behaviour on the part of party apparatuses is (understandably) damaging. In addition, the SP suffered a small but telling raft of resignations in a debate about a detail of Marx’s analysis of crisis. If a party cannot hope to have a grown up, public debate about the falling rate of profit how can it expect to manage the tensions within the working class as we leap into the new society? Apart from that, the SP have plodded on plodding. Conference, Socialism 2013 and NSSN were successes, of course. And so was TUSC.

According to a Facebook knockabout with Stoke SP’s organiser, over the last four years TUSC has stood approximately 600 candidates and won over 100,000 votes. Who’s that supposed to impress? In truth every sitting councillor who’s stood as TUSC have lost their seats, TUSC contested less than 10% of all of 2013’s by-elections, performs worse than the fragmenting BNP and were beaten twice by Elvis Loves Pets. Still, one mustn’t underestimate the importance of putting down a marker. By choosing to fight elections it must be judged in electoral terms, and the returns it has been getting are unlikely to trouble anyone committed to the labour movement’s political wing. On paper TUSC could fill that left space. But it is not a party, it is an off-on electoral front that is less than the sum of its parts. And while the SP pretend the coalition has some significance because the RMT executive maintains a bureaucratic relationship with it, most RMT members have never heard of it.

Does poor performance, TUSC’s loose character, and the lack of recognition among its single trade union affiliate caused pause for thought? Nope. TUSC are pledging to stand over 600 candidates in May’s local elections. That works out as virtually the SP’s entire active membership. However, in a completely ridiculous move the RMT and SP are dusting off No2EU again for the European elections, which are happening on the same day. If I was a small left party wanting to make as big a splash as possible, splitting my meagre ticket would be something to avoid. Still, No2EU can’t perform worse than last time, can it?

I fully expect this time the SP and SWP will be in the same boat. The SP waxing lyrical about its upcoming challenge to Labour (lest we forget it’s the main enemy of the labour movement), and the SWP pretending the lasting legacy of 2013 has been overcome. But what of the rest of the left? I’ve already talked through the prospects for Left Unity. It has much greater potential to fill the left niche than TUSC because it is an organisation for itself, like normal political parties are. It has also become the de facto go to for disaffected SWP refugees. This offers LU an advantage – it has acquired a layer of ready-made activists who are not afraid of political hard graft. But how many SWP bad habits have they brought over in their baggage train? And could they cohere as a powerful group-within-a-group? The fissiparous International Socialist Network of Richard Seymour-led suggests not in either case, if their work in LU so far is anything to go by.

More importantly than internal matters, if LU wants to challenge Labour it has to start thinking about elections. It might select a few areas to work hard between now and 2015, perhaps standing as local candidates this year; or it might try and meet TUSC by spreading itself thin and/or coming to some kind of seat sharing arrangement. I very much doubt it’ll have anything to do with No2EU’s 1970s nostalgia fest.

What of Scotland? The split and acrimony of 2006 casts long shadows across the Scottish far left. Tommy Sheridan’s vanity vehicle has either scattered or been absorbed by TUSC’s Scottish department. They can be counted to stand as No2EU just as they did in 2009, scrapping the Scottish Socialist Party for tenths of percentage points. The SSP is still around, but is a shadow of its 2003 glory days. But it has LU’s advantage. Unlike Solidarity, which was an alliance of convenience between the SWP, SP and Tommy, the SSP post-2006 was and is a “normal” party beholden to none but itself. Unsurprisingly given the wringer it was put through, the SSP does occasionally resemble a survivors’ group and it does stand in elections. It campaigns as a collective on issues like the bedroom tax and the independence referendum too, something neither LU or TUSC have so far done. So still, despite its much-reduced circumstances, the SSP remains something of a model for the far left to emulate. That said, it’s not really going anywhere. Its impact on the referendum is marginal. The vote it can expect at the European elections will be derisory, and the chances of it hooking up with “Brit” left organisations are zilch.

In short, no one can expect breakthroughs in 2014. No TUSC councillors will be elected in May. The SSP will not reap any political capital from the referendum, regardless of the way the vote swings. And LU will spend most of its time talking to itself. It’s another year on the treadmill for most and, if they’re lucky, not too many will hop off to do something more worthwhile. In the mean time the rest of the labour movement will be concentrating its resources on the crunch election of 2015, and pushing the party further in the social democratic direction it has started to head down. What comrades in or involved with the organisations above have to ask is this. How are the immediate interests of working people best served? And what would be the best use of your energies and time?

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist


  1. David Pavett says:

    I am not clear what comes under the heading of “the far left” in this piece. I agree about the exploitative nature of capitalism and the other points which are said to define it and yet I am not attracted by any of the groups which I normally think are referred to as the “far left”.

    I know even less how the claim that the far left has adopted the policies of neo-liberalism could be supported. Even some of the “soft left” is highly critical of the neo-liberal agenda (i.e. the marketisation of health and education).

    Phil Burton-Cartledge says “Yet when the odds are stacked against you, windows of opportunity remain. Now Labour is openly (and finally) talking about varieties of capitalism and the necessity of embracing another model based on industrial state activism, curbing markets, and more planning, only but the most blinkered would see this as Blair/Brown neoliberalism by other means.”

    I confess to being thus blinkered. And incidentally both Blair and Brown spoke of the need for state activism. “One nation Labour” speaks of state activism while still being prepared to abandon areas like education to control by a quasi-market freed from local democracy.

    P B-C: “Labour is groping its way back to social democracy.”

    I wish.

    P B-C: “There’s no denying that 2013 was the worst year in the SWP’s history.”

    I confess to not finding this disturbing news. I know little of the other groups discussed. Do I need to know about them? The RMT and SP are reviving a No2EU campaign. No, I am still not finding this worthy of interest.

    P B-C: “In the mean time the rest of the labour movement will be concentrating its resources on the crunch election of 2015, and pushing the party further in the social democratic direction it has started to head down. What comrades in or involved with the organisations above have to ask is this. How are the immediate interests of working people best served? And what would be the best use of your energies and time?”

    They do indeed need to ask that, as do the rest of us. The question is based on the claim that Labour has started to move in the direction of Social Democracy. But is that really true? And how does one “push” a Party so lacking in any mechanisms or habits of well-informed democratic debate and decision making. Moreover the current “social rhetoric” doesn’t really go beyond what the Labour Manifesto said in 1997. In that document we read, for example

    “An explicit objective of a Labour government will be to raise the trend rate of growth by strengthening our wealth-creating base. We will nurture investment in industry, skills, infrastructure and new technologies. And we will attack long-term unemployment, especially among young people.”

    The current rhetoric is not much different. As for standing up to the banks and the energy companies I am sure that a lot of people are in for a disappointment. If Labour serious about that it would be discussing its politicises with other centre-left and left parties in Europe. I know of not the slightest indication that it is doing so.

    I regret being so negative in reaction to a piece that is clearly trying to discern some hopeful signs in Labour’s current stance but those signs seem to me all to be a matter of rhetoric and not of real analysis or policy. I expect that Labour will rat even on some of the few progressive ideas it has committed to. When it comes to a face off with corporate interests and the media Labour will back off. I wish that there were reasons for seeing it differently but if there are then I can’t see them.

  2. swatantra says:

    There is yet another category, the ‘Loony Left’. Do we know how many members they have? And how many candidates they intend to put up?

  3. Dave Roberts says:

    The Loony Left is any group and individual which contributed to keeping Labour out of power for almost two decades, you decide. Some candidates would be all of the fringe parties mentioned above plus people like Livingstone, Ted Knight, Linda Bellos and Derek Hatton. How’s that for a start ?

  4. Rod says:

    @ Dave Roberts

    Well, that’s James Callaghan written off, who lost in ’79. What a useless, vote-deterring befuddlement he was.

    And Kinnock is scooped into the Loony Left Bin also. Whenever he was interviewed after 30 seconds you’d be praying he’d stfu.
    Kinnock could have done much better if he’d put less energy into the production of hot air.

  5. Peter Rowlands says:

    Phil is broadly right. There is little prospect of any of the far left groups achieving anything beyond a miniscule vote in 2015, even the newly formed Left Unity which deserves to be taken somewhat more seriously than the others. The main reason for this however, which Phil doesn’t mention, is our electoral system which discriminates against small parties. This is why UKIP and the Greens have MEPs,elected under a proportional system, but only one Green and no UKIP MP.
    Phil is also right to see Labour edging its way back to a form of social democracy, which the left in the party should support and promote. However, the Blairite wing of the party remains powerful , and the battle even for a limited form of social democracy is not yet won. But David Pavett’s view is too pessimistic.Despite its failure to advance anything decent in areas such as education, commitments over banking, housing, energy and living standards can win Labour the election and begin a new era, although the test will come in seeing the policies through. We have to try, anyway, because there is no other way forward for the left at this juncture.

  6. Chris says:

    The SWP did the right thing. Every single person who’s criticised them is an identity politics Nazi. Pussywhipped scum.

  7. Rod says:

    Peter Rowlands: “there is no other way forward for the left at this juncture.”

    But then voting for the Progress Party is not a way forward so the left will remain on the sidelines.

    A little over a year ago, at a demonstration in London, Unite’s McCluskey made a lot of noise about a general strike. But of course, McCluskey does not intend to facilitate a general strike. It won’t happen. McCluskey simply wanted to tell the demonstrators what he thought they wanted to hear and convey the impression of himself as a man of action.

    This is just an example of how the left can’t even talk to itself honestly. If voting for the Progress Party is the only way forward for the left then the left is a spent force, it is intellectually and politically bankrupt.

    And if you can’t think of anything else to do you may as well devote yourself to cultivating prize-winning vegetables for your local garden show.

  8. David Pavett says:

    Pete Rowlands thinks that I am too pessimistic about Labour. I can’t say that he is not right but his grounds for saying so are less than clear to me. He grants Labour’s reactionary position on a broad sweep of social policies but hinges his hopes for a resurgence of social democracy within Labour on its commitments on banking, energy and living standards. My feeling is that this will turn out to be illusory.

    Labour’s living standards attack on the Tories fails to recognise that they were falling under Labour prior to 2010. The same is true of the rate of house building (which had been declining ever since the 70s). What can be expected without such minimal honesty? Labour’s rhetoric amounts to opportunistic political sniping.

    Moreover, on the standard of living Labour will not go so far as to commit to a living wage minimum.

    As for the banks and energy we’ll see but I think that the tough talking will be considerably toned done when these sectors threaten an investment strike, or simply to invest elsewhere.

    Pete says “there is no other way forward for the left at this juncture”. In practice it seems like agree because I am a member of the Labour Party. I cannot say, however, that this feels like taking anything “forward”. I wish that there were a genuinely democratic, open-minded and politically well-informed party of the left. If there were I would join it straight away – even if electoral prospects seemed a long way off. I am in the Labour Party because I can’t see anywhere else to go at the moment. The majority of the Shadow Cabinet represent a great deal of what I act politically to oppose.

    Labour would only change on the basis of a revolt of the membership demanding big changes in the Party’s policies and the way it is run. What are the chances of that? All the activity I know of on this is that of small fringe groups which seem unlikely to be broad movements.

  9. Rod says:

    “Labour’s rhetoric amounts to opportunistic political sniping.”

    Forget about Labour’s rhetoric, judge instead by what Milidand does.

    Events at Falkirk should wash away whatever optimism has survived this far.

    At Falkirk Miliband led the charge against Unite, using allegations of wrong-doing as an excuse to campaign for breaking the collective link with the Unions.
    And, as has even been acknowledged by commentators in the right-wing press, this gave an employer the green light to launch an assault on the terms and conditions of what is (or at least was) a highly unionised and probably (mostly) Labour-voting workforce.

    End result: a Progress friendly Westminster insider becomes PPC in what has been a save Labour seat. And hundreds of employees are humiliated and return to work on poorer conditions.

    To my knowledge not a single Labour MP has raised as much as an eyebrow over the price extracted from the workforce in order to advance the career of a prospective MP. Perhaps, like much of Labour’s left-leaning membership, they have no fight left in them.

    But if Miliband is capable of such opportunistic ruthlessness in opposition, what might he do if he wins in 2015?

    I certainly won’t be renewing my LP membership.

  10. David Melvin says:

    The more I hear from Ed’s Miliband and Balls the more I believe the Labour party is the problem not the solution and there is an opportunity for a left party such as Left Unity, similar to those parties in Europe affiliated to the European Left Party.

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